Parquet Courts’ thought-provoking rock is dancing to a new tune. Sympathy For Life finds the Brooklyn band at both their most instinctive and electronic, spinning their bewitching, psychedelic storytelling into fresh territory, yet maintaining their unique identity.
Built largely from improvised jams, inspired by New York clubs, Primal Scream and Pink Floyd and produced in league with Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Hot Chip, David Byrne), Sympathy For Life was always destined to be dancey. Unlike its globally adored predecessor, 2018’s Wide Awake! – a Top 30 hit here and an album of the year everywhere from Spin and The Skinny to NME and Australia’s Double J – the focus fell on grooves rather than rhythm.
“Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party,” says co-frontman Austin Brown. “Sympathy For Life is influenced by the party itself. Historically, some amazing rock records been made from mingling in dance music culture – from Talking Heads to Screamadelica. Our goal was to bring that in to our own music.
“Each of us, in our personal lives, has been going to more dance parties. Or rather, we were, pre-pandemic, which is when this record was made.”
Before sessions began at Brooklyn’s The Bridge studio in autumn 2019, as ever, the quartet (Brown and Savage plus bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage) took time out to work on ideas separately. For co-frontman A Savage, that meant a trip to Italy armed with Mad Hatter acid.
“I took a lot of acid with me and started working out,” he says. “I call it trippy lifting. I would trip and work out during the day, then write songs at night. Three or four of the songs that made it on to album began there – Walking At A Downtown Pace, Pulcinella, Trullo. Most of my ideas for the artwork formed at that time too. I had a big piece of paper taped to the wall that read “CAN, CANNED HEAT, & THIS HEAT”. That was the sound I wanted to find.”
Back home, the jamming began.
“Most of the songs were created by taking long improvisations and moulding them through our own editing,” explains Brown. “The biggest asset we have as artists is the band. After 10 years together, our greatest instrument is each other. The purest expression of Parquet Courts is when we are improvising.”
Dreamy lead single Plant Life, released in June, was edited to 10 minutes from a 40 minute-plus jam and almost halved again for the album. Digital disco-punk anthem Marathon Of Anger, which began as a largely electronic jam inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, was painstakingly snipped from 41 minutes to a neat four and a half.
In between was where the hard work occurred.
“More than any of our albums, this one was about the process,” says Brown. “It was about viewing the themes through a dance music lens and our own filter to discover where it would take us. Seven albums in, the pressure is on to do something new, but still sound like us.”
Key to the complex process was working with McDonald, first at The Bridge, then for an intense fortnight at The Outlier Inn, a sprawling, bucolic studio in the Catskills, where 2014’s Sunbathing Animal was recorded.
“I met Rodaidh when I was DJing in LA,” notes Brown. “I brought my records to his house and we spent days talking about what we wanted to do and sampling stuff from both of our collections for references. When he came to New York to record, we mashed up some of those samples to make beats and grooves and jammed over the top. It was a cool way to work, completely different for us.”
Also central was a Korg MS-20 synthesiser, through which the guitars were fed. Austin often switched to synths. Max Savage played lots of e-drums live. In the Catskills, they used a geodesic dome as a reverb tank and Brown manned a dub station.
“On some of the songs, I wasn’t playing anything but everyone else’s instruments,” he says. “For Plant Life and Marathon Of Anger, I ran everything through the mixer doing the echoes and delay. It’s the same way you’d mix a dub album.”
In March last year, the band decamped to Real World Studios near Bath to work with John Parish on Sympathy For Life’s Sandinista!-esque title track and the sensual, strung-out Pulcinella.
“While we were there, the papers were full of Covid stories, but we were too busy to read them,” explains Savage. “We thought the headlines were unnecessarily alarmist until we arrived at the airport to fly home and people were wearing masks. We left two days before lockdown.”
By then, the album was almost finished and all of the lyrics were written. Spookily, Sympathy For Life opens and ends with songs which reference masks. Closer Pulcinella was inspired by a souvenir of the masked Commedia dell’Arte character of the same name.
“Only afterwards it occurred to me that Commedia dell’Arte was very popular during the Great Plague,” says Savage.
Why did he gravitate to this character while in Italy?
“Perhaps I had a plague premonition,” he smiles.
As everything shut down around the world, so – inevitably - the album release was postponed too. It finally arrives this October, exactly a year late, yet also right on time.
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